December 11, 2000
"Listening for News"
In her last radio message Amelia Earhart said: "We are on the line of position 157-337. Will repeat this message on 6210. We are running North and South." What this all means is that they were flying along a straight line aligned with the compass direction 157 degrees and its opposite bearing 337 degrees, i.e. roughly between southeast and northwest. However it doesn't say which way they were flying along that line, and even more disappointing; the line could have been anywhere in the Pacific since she didn't give their position, only their direction of flight.
The reference to 6210 is the frequency 6210 kilohertz, to which the people aboard the Coastguard cutter Itasca listened but never heard another transmission. And after those enigmatic final words, nothing more was ever heard from Amelia Earhart.
6210 is currently a shortwave radio frequency that you can tune up on any short wave radio receiver. So Tonight we did just that, and listened to that frequency as had the Coastguard on the morning of July 2nd. And this is what we heard.
There is something about that sound, heard at such an enormous distance from all that is familiar to our land bound lives-all that is kind to our senses: particularly when it is listened to out here in the midst of this measureless, blue, indifferent ocean, that strikes me as infinitely sad. The emptiness of distance. The sound of remoteness. The sound of no message-no messages getting through. The sound of no news.
When I heard it tonight I felt the loss of Amelia Earhart as never before. I suspect that that sound is in no significant way any different from the way it sounded the day the crew of the Coastguard vessel Itasca was trying so desperately to hear her transmissions. In that way it brings me back in time to that moment when the world was listening for some thread of news with which to pull Amelia Earhart back into our lives yet it was hearing nothing but that most faraway of sounds.
When one is this far from home there is another kind of news a short wave radio brings and that is the evidence of the remoteness of one's world. When we tune at random to stations around 6210 kHz we get this kind of thing.
Cultures so different than the European ones with which we feel some familiarity we cannot even tell what language is being spoken, let alone what is being said. It is this mix of totally unfamiliar foreign tongues, coupled with the knowledge that we are approaching areas like New Guinea with more languages than any comparably sized area on earth, that reminds us that when Amelia Earhart flew around the world in 1937, and came so close to actually making it, her plane was not just a flying machine, it was a kind of cultural time machine, a mysterious thing which penetrated into areas and imaginations so remote from her knowledge, and from ours, that it was somehow destined to end in enigma and mystery.
Had the equipment the government installed on Howland Island to determine the direction to Earhart's radio signals worked they might have gotten a bearing on her, but they would still not have known where she was, since a line of position is just a direction of flight and could have crossed their bearing line at any distance along it. In fact, had the direction finding equipment worked and the people on Howland thus known what direction she had to fly to get to the island it would still not have saved her. Because she would have had to be able to hear what they were saying, and for some reason she could not-it was only they who could hear her.
So alas, it is almost as if fate conspired to remove all assistance that radio messages might have given her... almost as if her final transmission had been selected by ill luck to lack any information of any kind that could ever be used, then or for all time, to help anyone find out where her flight finally ended.
A new hope for resolving this mystery comes from two skeletons found by British soldiers on Gardner Island (now called Nikumaroro island) in 1941, four years after Earhart's and Noonan's disappearance. They were described at the time as being of two men. But in 1998 the notes of the British doctor who examined them were reread and it became apparent that one of the skeletons was more likely that of a woman-a Caucasian woman furthermore-of Earhart's height (5',7" or 5',8"). It is believed that the bones may still exist in a museum in Fiji, but so far efforts to find them have failed. However, an intense search by that museum is now underway.
If Howland Island was misplaced on Earhart's chart, its neighboring island, Baker, 37 miles away was probably misplaced as well, since the two are administered together, and presumably surveyed in the same surveys by the same ships. This is by way of pointing out that if Noonan and Earhart could not find Howland they probably could not find Baker either. But if Noonan was confident enough of his navigation to know that Howland was not where it was reported to be on the chart they would have soon gone to a fall-back plan and headed for some alternative landing place. The next nearest place to Howland in which to make a realistic try for a landing would have been Nikumaroro, 360 miles from Howland island. There is a closer island to Howland, McKean. But McKean is a dot, less than half a mile long and was uninhabited at the time, making it a poor choice for a landing if they were to have any hope of being rescued. Nikumaroro was a better bet since it was inhabited, and is a far larger atoll-a place where they might hope to get help. All this was presumably known to Earhart and Noonan. The main question being whether they had sufficient fuel to reach Nikumaroro. Most accounts say that Earhart's Electra had been modified to carry enough fuel to give it a range of 4,000 miles. Howland is 2556 miles from Lae, Papua New Guinea. So unless they had utilized far more fuel than planned, fighting equatorial head winds, for example (which she was, in fact, flying against) she might well have had enough fuel to reach Nikumaroro comfortably. And besides, I suspect it would not take her and Noonan very long to give up looking for a tiny island like Howland in this blue infinite. For it is one thing to contemplate such untenanted vastness from one's fireside, and quite another to experience that measureless emptiness by wandering within it.
Someday, when sonars become sophisticated enough to see objects the size of a plane on the floor of the deep ocean clearly, in images covering large areas of sea floor, someone may find Earhart's plane, and the mystery will either be solved, or diminished. Until that time we will have to live in the current ignorance of what happened.
For some reason that I cannot quite understand. I am not content with this state of affairs.
This is Roger Payne, caught by a quandary that lies somewhere in this greatest of all oceans
© 2000 - Roger Payne